Sally Ride

Sally Ride Interview

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, visited Scholastic's Web site on November 20, 1998. Here are her answers to questions from students.

Lift Off

How did you feel when you lifted off into space? Were you scared?
I wasn't really scared. I was very excited, and I was very anxious. When you're getting ready to launch into space, you're sitting on a big explosion waiting to happen. So most astronauts getting ready to lift off are excited and very anxious and worried about that explosion — because if something goes wrong in the first seconds of launch, there's not very much you can do.

How did your family feel about your going into space?
They were very excited. They all went down to Florida to watch the launch, and they spent time there and at NASA during the flight. They were very excited about the whole process. I'm sure they were a little nervous, too!

Which did you like better, liftoff or landing?
I liked launch better. It's much more exciting. And it's very different from any experience you can have on earth. Even though NASA tries to simulate launch, and we practice in simulators, it's not the same — it's not even close to the same. It's a very exciting experience. Landing is very exciting, too, but during landing the space shuttle acts very much like an airplane. So although it's different in many ways from landing on an airplane, in some ways the feeling is familiar.

The Challenger Explosion

Are you scared to go into space again because of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger?
No, I think most astronauts recognize that the space shuttle program is very high-risk, and are prepared for accidents. After the Challenger accident, NASA put in a lot of time to improve the safety of the space shuttle to fix the things that had gone wrong. The space shuttle is a better and safer rocket than it was before the Challenger accident.

Did you know any of the astronauts who were killed in the Challenger explosion?
I knew five of them very well. Four of them were in my same astronaut class, and we had been together for almost eight years at the time of the accident. So we were very good friends. It was very hard.

Personal History

When did you realize you wanted to become an astronaut?
I didn't really decide that I wanted to be an astronaut for sure until the end of college. But even in elementary school and junior high, I was very interested in space and in the space program.

Did you have male or female heroes when you were growing up?
I had both male and female heroes. One was a high school science teacher who was very important in encouraging me to pursue science. Because I was a tennis player, Billie Jean King was a hero of mine. And the early astronauts, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, were heroes of mine as well.

What was your favorite subject in junior high school?
I liked math — that was my favorite subject — and I was very interested in astronomy and in physical science.

What made you decide to become a scientist instead of a professional tennis player?
A bad forehand! (Laughs.) I was always very interested in science, and I knew that for me, science was a better long-term career than tennis. So I decided on science when I was in college.

Do you have any nicknames, like Mustang Sally?
(Laughs.) I don't have any nicknames.

What hobbies do you have? Do you have any pets?
I do a lot of running and hiking, and I also collect stamps — space stamps and Olympics stamps. And I do have a pet, a dog, Segan.

Women at NASA

Did you feel a special responsibility as the first American woman in space?
Yes, I did feel a special responsibility to be the first American woman in space. I felt very honored, and I knew that people would be watching very closely, and I felt it was very, very important that I do a good job.

Did you ever feel like you were discriminated against at NASA because you are a woman?
No, I didn't. The astronauts who came in with me in my astronaut class — my class had 29 men and 6 women — those men were all very used to working with women. And so there was no problem.

Do you think there could ever be an all-woman crew doing a space shuttle mission?
Sure! Later this year — probably in April — we're going to have the first woman commanding a space shuttle, Eileen Collins. And there are now several women astronauts who have a test pilot background, and that was not true for a long time. For quite some time, women at NASA only had scientific backgrounds. So it would've been impossible to have an all-women crew because there weren't women pilots. But now it would be very possible!

Shuttle Missions

How long did you have to prepare to go into space?
It takes a few years to prepare for a space mission. It takes a couple of years just to get the background and knowledge that you need before you can go into detailed training for your mission. So most astronauts are astronauts for a couple of years before they are assigned to a flight. Once you are assigned to a flight, the whole crew is assigned at the same time, and then that crew trains together for a whole year to prepare for that flight.

How is today's shuttle different from the one you flew up in?
There are very few differences. The shuttle itself is very much the same. There have been some small changes — ones that allow it to dock to the Russian space station, Mir. And the laptop computers onboard are more powerful. But the electronics and the computer programs that run the space shuttle are all exactly the same. Probably the biggest difference since my flight is that astronauts now wear pressure suits during launch and re-entry. And during my flight, and the first 25 flights of the shuttle, astronauts just wore normal flight suits, not pressure suits. (The pressure suit helps if something goes wrong during launch or re-entry — astronauts have a way to parachute off the shuttle. The suits protect you from loss of pressure in case of emergency.)

Is astronaut training different now from what it was like when you were training?
No. The training is almost exactly the same. There are a couple of small differences depending on the experiments they carry, but that's it.

What role did you play on board Challenger?
On a standard space shuttle crew, two of the astronauts have a test pilot background — the commander and the pilot. And three of the astronauts are engineers or scientists, and those are the mission specialists. My background is in physics, so I was the mission specialist, who is sort of like the flight engineer on an airplane. Many airplane crews have three people — pilot, copilot, and the flight engineer, and the flight engineer sits just behind and between the pilot and the copilot, and that was my position during launch and re-entry. Then during the mission itself, I used the space shuttle's robot arm to release a satellite into orbit. I also operated several experiments and launched two communications satellites.

What kind of experiments did you do on board Challenger?
On one flight, the experiments were mostly ones to study the earth. So we carried high-resolution cameras, radar, and experiments to study the earth's atmosphere.

Did you get to do a space walk?
I did not get to go outside on a space walk. On one of my flights, two astronauts were able to go on space walks. It's always the mission specialists that do it, and the other two mission specialists got to go outside and work on some planned experiments on one of my flights. Only two people get to go on any spaceflight. But I had my fun doing other things!

What did you do in space when you weren't doing experiments or working?
Well, we spend an awful lot of our time working and doing experiments. It's very busy up on the shuttle. But when I wasn't working, I was usually at a window looking down at Earth.

Did you and the other astronauts take any animals on board the shuttle with you?
No, we didn't. We didn't have any animals on either of my shuttle flights. But NASA does sometimes send animals up in the crew cabin of the shuttle as part of experiments to understand how the animals are affected by weightlessness. There have been ants, spiders, bees, rats… a lot of different types of animals.

What was the scariest moment for you in space?
Well, I'm not sure that I had any really scary moments. On both of my flights, everything went very well. The most anxious time was during launch, just because that is so dramatic.

Life on the Shuttle

How did you sleep when you were in space? Did you float around?
Different astronauts sleep in different ways. I slept just floating in the middle of the flight deck, the upper deck of the space shuttle. Some astronauts sleep in sort of beds — compartments that you can open up and crawl into and then close up, almost like a little bedroom. Some astronauts sleep in sleeping bags that are velcroed into one of the walls in the shuttle. It's easy to sleep floating around — it's very comfortable. But you have to be careful that you don't float into somebody or something!

What clothes did you bring with you into space?
Well, we don't get that much of a choice. NASA has to approve whatever we wear, so there are clothes to choose from, like space shorts — we wear those a lot — and NASA T-shirts. I wore a short-sleeved shirt, and also a long-sleeved shirt. And all of us wore socks all the time instead of shoes and socks. You're floating, so not wearing shoes means you can kick somebody! (Laughs.) Plus, shoes are heavy, and you don't need them.

What is space food like?
The food isn't too bad. It's very different from the food that the astronauts ate in the very early days of the space program. A lot of it is like food that you'd take on a camping trip. With some of it, you need to add water to reconstitute it. And some of it is regular packaged food. We carried a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter on my flight.

Does food taste spicier in space?
I didn't notice that. Some people have said that; some people don't notice it. I was one of the ones that didn't notice it.

How do you go to the bathroom in space?
The space shuttle has something that looks very much like a toilet. And on Earth, a toilet works because of gravity. It pulls the water away from your body. In space, you have to use something to pull the liquid from your body, so the space toilet uses air suction. It pulls the liquid from your body, and it works very well.

Views From Space

What is the view of Earth like from the space shuttle?
The view of Earth is spectacular. The shuttle is pretty close to Earth. It only flies between 200 and 350 miles above Earth. So it's really pretty close. So we don't see the whole planet, like the astronauts who went to the moon did. So we can see much more detail. We can see cities during the day and at night, and we can watch rivers dump sediment into the ocean, and see hurricanes form. It's just a lot of fun and very interesting to look out the window. The other planets look pretty much like they do from Earth. The shuttle is so close to Earth that we're not much closer than you are when you're standing on Earth looking at the sky. So I saw many planets, and they looked just a little bit brighter than they do from Earth. They're like bright points of light.

What do the stars look like from space? Are they bigger?
The stars don't look bigger, but they do look brighter. When you're on Earth, if you go to the top of a mountain, the stars look much brighter than they do at sea level. And because the space shuttle is above Earth's atmosphere, it's like being on a very, very high mountain. So they look brighter, but not bigger.

Is it dark in space?
When you're on the dark side of earth, it's very dark, but when you're on the sunny side, it's pretty bright!

Do days seem to go more slowly when you're in space?
No, they don't. The days go by very quickly. And that's probably just because we have so much to do.

Being Weightless

What does it feel like to be weightless?
Weightlessness is fun. It doesn't feel any different to your body or to your insides. So you feel the same. But the difference is that you can float in the middle of the room — you can do somersaults in the middle of the room, and in fact, you can't stand on the floor. You will float off the floor. There are long-term and short-term physiological effects of weightlessness. And they all result from the body adapting very quickly and efficiently to weightlessness. It's easier on the body to be in space than it is to be on Earth. Your body figures out that it doesn't need to have extremely strong bones to lift weights, etc. So your body very slowly and very gradually loses a little bit of your bone. If you're in space for a week or two, you don't notice at all. But if you're in space for six months or a year, the loss in bone can be easily measured. You'll gain the bone back when you come back to Earth. But it's potentially a problem on missions to Mars, because astronauts will be away from Earth for a very long time and could return to earth with thinner bones.

Does it feel strange to return to earth's gravity field after being weightless?
For the first 20 minutes or so, it's a very strange feeling because your body adapts very well to weightlessness. And so being back on Earth is an odd feeling. It takes a little while to get used to it, and to get your muscles and your balance system working correctly again. But for most astronauts it only takes 20 or 30 minutes to get back to the point where it's easy to walk down the stairs from the shuttle and to walk in a straight line looking normal. You might not feel normal for a day or two, but it's a pretty quick adjustment.

What are the most fun things about being in space?
I think that the two things that almost any astronaut would describe are the weightlessness and the view of Earth. Weightlessness is just a lot of fun!

Kids in Space

How can junior high and high school students prepare to become astronauts?
Well, the most important thing is to start early in middle school or so. You should study math and science. It's not so important to pick one particular area of science. NASA is looking for scientists with backgrounds in all areas. But what is important is to find some area in science or engineering that is very interesting to you, and to pursue it and study it very hard.

Do you think a child could be trained as an astronaut and go into space?
Maybe some day. It would have to be a child who was willing to work very hard and to very closely follow the directions of the astronauts on the crew, because there are a lot of things that can go wrong in space, and you have to know exactly what to do when something goes wrong. There are also a lot of mistakes that you can make that can lead to problems. So it would be very important to be well trained.

Future Space Exploration

Would you like to go into space again?
I'd like to, but I also enjoy the physics research and teaching that I do at the University of California, San Diego. And I had always planned to leave NASA after seven or eight years and go back to a career in teaching. That's very common in NASA — most astronauts leave after ten years or so to go back to their original careers. So I would like to go back into space again, but not if it meant I had to give up the job I have now.

Do you enjoy teaching?
Yes. I enjoy teaching very much, and it's very challenging. People sometimes don't realize how hard a teacher works!

Do you think there is life in outer space?
I think there probably is life, maybe primitive life, in outer space. There might be very primitive life in our solar system — single-cell animals, that sort of thing. We may know the answer to that in five or ten years. There is very likely to be life in other solar systems, in planets around other stars. But we won't know about that for a long time.

Would you like to go on the mission to Mars?
I would go to Mars. But that trip is a long ways off. Astronauts won't be leaving for Mars for at least 10 or 15 years.

Would you like to go to the moon?
There aren't any flights to the moon that are planned. (Laughs.) I'd like to go, but it's going to be a very long time before anyone goes back to the moon.

Sally, do you have any final words for our audience?
Thanks, and good-bye! I enjoyed it!


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